Literature on discrimination and racism from the Leiden University Library collections
After large scale protests in the United States following police violence against black American citizens, racism in the Netherlands, too, is once again being widely debated. This renewed and intensified interest in the problems surrounding racism is prompting many to (re)read important works by black authors, books in which racism, discrimination and emancipation play a pivotal role. The Leiden University Libraries’ (UBL) collections hold a great variety of literary, historical and sociological works by black authors, speaking out about the racism ethnic minorities experience in the Netherlands and abroad. We made a selection from our collections that is of course incomplete. In this list you can find important recent and less recent works, from academic and literary icons as well as from new, upcoming talent.
Black American authors have been writing about their experiences in American society for centuries. We selected several works from the UBL collections that are part of this longstanding tradition, providing an overview of the role marginalization and institutional racism have played and play in American society. All works in the list below are available in the UBL catalogue, follow the links to find the books directly.
Morgan Parker – Magical Negro
The young poet Morgan Parker (1987) focusses on the experience of black women in the United States. On the back cover of her recent collection of poems Magical Negro (2019) her work is dubbed an “archive of Black everydayness”, “a catalogue of contemporary folk heroes, an ethnography of ancestral grief”. In her poems, Parker declares herself indebted to important black thinkers like Angela Davis and W.E.B. Du Bois. In one of her poems, she summarises her struggle as a black feminist in one sentence: “We have gathered / to learn to pronounce freedom.”
W.E.B. Du Bois - The Souls of Black Folk
According to American writer and civil-rights activist James Weldon Johnson, the importance of W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk for the African American community is comparable to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this book, released in 1903, Du Bois introduced the concept of ‘double consciousness’, the idea that historically, black people have always had to be aware not only of their self-image, but also have also had to maintain awareness of the image they project to the rest of the world, specifically among their white peers. Du Bois’ biographer, Manning Marable, once said about this study: “Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position. It helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century.”
James Baldwin – Go Tell it on the Mountain
"Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else." This is what James Baldwin said about his first great work Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). The semi-autobiographical novel can be read as a coming-of-age story, about a 14 year-old boy in nineteen-thirties Harlem. Two years later, Baldwin would publish his collection of essays Notes of a Native Son, in which he critically examines racism in the United States and Europe. Yet another year later, in 1956, Baldwin published Giovanni’s Room, which not only stirred controversy around its themes of homosexuality, but also propelled Baldwin to a prominent and outspoken position in a budding Gay Liberation Movement. Baldwin’s life and works particularly illustrate the intersectionality of emancipatory movements around ethnicity, sexuality and class.
Colson Whitehead – Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead is one of the most important American writers at the moment. In 2017, he won the Pullitzer Prize for his seminal work Underground Railroad, and in 2020 he won it again for his novel The Nickel Boys – making him one of four writers with not one, but two Pullitzer Prizes to their name. Underground Railroad tells the harrowing tale of a slave coveted by her slave-master on a cotton plantation in Georgia. She embarks upon a flight attempt with the help of a clandestine network of abolitionists (the “Underground railroad”). In this work, as in his earlier and later works, racism plays an important role.
Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me
Nobel laureate Toni Morrison once asked herself aloud who would fill the intellectual void left behind after the death of James Baldwin. “Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. Required reading,” was her answer to her own contemplation. Between the World and Me is an epistolary work, in which Coates writes a long letter to his fifteen-year-old son. He touches, among other things, upon his own experience of racism as a bodily one: The black body is constantly threatened, according to Coates, an external threat that takes many different forms throughout American history, varying from slavery to police violence. The text on the book cover of the Dutch translation of Between the World and Me ends on the following note: “He endeavours to answer one question: is it possible to live safely and non-violently in a black body in the United States?”
Dutch and European authors
Both black and white authors have made significant contributions to the debate surrounding racism and discrimination, both in academic context and in the public sphere. This list is a selection of writers approaching the issues of their own identity and experience, or those of other groups, in an entirely original and often personal manner in Dutch and European context. All works on this list, too, are available in the UBL catalogue.
Ali Rattansi – Racism A Very Short Introduction
Racism A Very Short Introduction is a short, but comprehensive overview of racism in all its many forms. Ali Rattansi not only analyses recent examples of racial violence and protest, but also provides an – often thought-provoking – historical and theoretical framework, creating a backdrop on which to build better understanding of current societal shifts in the United States. Alongside a focus on discrimination against black people, antisemitism and islamophobia are also discussed using the same framework.
Sara Ahmed - On Being Included
In her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), British-Australian academic Sara Ahmed questions our conceptions of diversity, racism and institutions. Ahmed is considered one of the most outspoken proponents of intersectional thinking, through which problems around gender, sexuality and ethnicity are not analyzed as separate issues, but are considered in relation to each other. In her study, Ahmed analyzes institutionalization of racism and the often veiled ways it manifests itself. She juxtaposes this issue with thoughts about diversity, proposing these as a possible remedy.
Gloria Wekker – White Innocence
In debates about racism in the Netherlands, this term has now been thoroughly established: ‘white innocence’. This phrase is also the title of Gloria Wekker’s study on racism in the Netherlands: White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (2016). The book is now considered an anchor point in the debate around racism in the Netherlands. Wekker asks herself, in her book, why many white people in the Netherlands deny the existence of racism, while at the same time many black or coloured people encounter it on a daily basis.
Anton de Kom - Wij slaven van Suriname
Only this month, it was announced that Wij slaven van Suriname (1934) (We slaves of Surinam) was officially added to the Dutch Historic Canon. In Surinam, De Kom has been considered a national hero for decades: he was eternalised in a bust and a Surinamese university bears his name. The importance of Wij slaven van Suriname lays not only in De Kom’s display of literary acuity, but also in the fact that he was the first to approach the Dutch colonization and rule of Surinam from an anti-colonial perspective. His book, initially published in censored form, only released in uncensored form in 1971, reads as a charge and indictment of racism, slavery and exploitation.
Sunny Bergman – Wit is ook een kleur
In 2014, Sunny Bergman made the documentary Zwart als roet (Black as soot), which she followed in 2016 with her much discussed documentary Wit is ook een kleur (White is a colour too). This last documentary fuelled already present debate about racism in the Netherlands, expanding the scope of the debate itself. In the wake of Wit is ook een kleur, Bergman published a book of the same title, a collection of columns, written from an activist perspective. In this book she addresses issues like: how problematic is whiteness? What do feminists and anti-racists have in common? And: is it not time for an election of the most feminist man? The thought-provoking nature of her work was clearly borne out by the intense debates that were had by viewers and readers of Bergman’s work.
Philomena Essed – Alledaags racisme
“Her message, that the Netherlands is a racist society, was criticized harshly thirty years ago, but a new generation of activists now reveres Philomena Essed”. This is what Rasit Elibol and Jaap Tielbeke wrote in De Groene Amsterdammer, following the revaluation of her work, especially her 1984 book: Alledaags racisme (Everyday Racism), that in retrospect can be viewed as a preliminary study for: Understanding Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory, the title of her 1990 PhD thesis. For Alledaags racisme, Essed spoke to twenty women about racism they encountered on a daily basis in everyday situations: in looking for a job or housing, in contacts with their neighbors or at the store. Gloria Wekker once called it “a disgrace that she [Essed] never got a professorship in the Netherlands. She didn’t get marginalized per se, but they didn’t make it an appealing prospect for her either.”
Zwart: Afro-Europese literatuur uit de Lage Landen
If you look at an anthology of important Dutch or Flemish authors from the nineteen-fifties, chances are that you will encounter a list of mostly white authors. In the meantime, literature in the Low Countries has become considerably more colourful. Vamba Sherif and Ebissé Rouw decided to bring black authors, whom they label Afro-European, together in an anthology, showcasing the diversity of the contemporary Dutch-language literary field. In the autumn of 2020, the second part or follow-up to the anthology will be released, titled AfroLit, covering modern literature from the African diaspora.
Gert Oostindie & Karwan Fatah Black - Sporen van de slavernij in Leiden
Although Leiden didn’t play as pivotal a role in colonial trade as Amsterdam and Middleburg did, the city is in certainly inextricably tied to slavery. In this book, Sporen van de slavernij in Leiden, the traces of this history of slavery are laid bare. Which inhabitants were connected to the slave trade as authorities or entrepreneurs, and who were the victims of this trade? How do intellectuals and students discuss slavery in academic context at Leiden University? Which traces of this past are still visible in museum collections in the city? By linking several topics to physical locations in Leiden, the book also acts as a guide for walks in and around Leiden.
Benjamin H. Isaac – The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity
A provocative book, taking a stand against the long and broadly held belief that the classical world lacked racism (in the modern sense of the word). Based on an extensive analysis of texts from classical antiquity, Isaac shows in The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, that Greeks and Romans indeed used racial stereotypes, apart from cultural and ethnic preconceptions and prejudices. In his work, he tries to show the many insights and clues Classical Antiquity can offer in a debate about racism throughout the ages. Through this work, Isaac started a new kind of debate among scholars of classical antiquity.